The Meaning of Silence

5Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes. 6He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” – Malachi 4:5-6 (WEB)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this; for after his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit. – Matthew 1:18 (WEB)

Jody asked me last night to give my thoughts on God’s silence. I think it’s a wonderful topic, but I wonder if any of us actually know what we mean by it. There are so many things I could say about God’s silence; perhaps I’ll hand Jody another devotional on the topic that she can use when she wants.

You see, the way we use “silence” in daily life is actually quite relative. When the noise level drops so that things seem peaceful, we will call it silence. Many people are quite comfortable saying something like, “The silence was wonderful; only the singing of the birds could be heard.” Well, if the birds are singing, it wasn’t actually silent, was it?

No, I’m not going to beat up on everyone who doesn’t use language precisely. That is how language is. If we say our children are quiet, we don’t mean that nothing in the house would possibly disturb a sound meter; we mean that relative to normal noise, the sound level is pretty low. That’s why you can use things like “mostly silent” or “absolutely silent” and so forth.

Our problem in talking about God’s silence is that we often can’t answer the question “relative to what?” Just last night Jody started talking to me, and I didn’t “hear” a word she said. Well, in a sense I “heard;” I knew she was talking. In this case, however, I had a good excuse. She had been talking to Janet on the phone, and I was filtering their conversation, one that didn’t involve me. Then with little pause she switched to telling me something. I was still filtering.

Or consider the Indiana Jones movies. You’ll notice that several of them start with him lecturing in a classroom, and what he’s talking about isn’t all that exciting. In fact, he can hardly wait to talk to the person who might have something else for him to do. Now Indiana Jones is not a good example of what archeology is about, but he will illustrate this point again. Based on the movies, one might say that someone had designed a very exciting life for this character. But have you considered why we don’t have any movies about the times in between? It would be boring! We’d have Indiana Jones going to his classroom, giving lectures, reading books, writing papers, talking to students, and doing all those other things that professors do. It’s because he does those things that people are surprised when he can handle a fight so well.

Radio and other forms of electronic communication provide another good illustration. Do you remember the good old days of modems when you would have your machine dial a number and then you’d hear tones, warbling sounds, white noise, and other clicks and clacks? Then if you were doing well that day the line would fall into silence and you would hear silence. Would it surprise you to know that all those sounds are quite meaningful to the computer? The two modems would be exchanging information such as what speed each was capable of, testing communications at various levels, and finding one at which they could get a reliable connection. You could turn the speaker off, because that information was not important, but someone experienced could tell how the connection was proceeding by listening to those sounds.

But what may be even more surprising may be that even the static on your radio has a cause and has meaning. It comes from a source. It might simply be the background cosmic activity. In the modern world, it is often from various electrical sources. Drive under large electrical lines with your AM radio on and you will notice increased static. It’s not meaningful to you, but it all does have a cause, and thus some sort of meaning. The problem is to find what is meaningful to you, and sometimes to learn how to understand the things that don’t seem meaningful, but might be useful.

Once when I was installing an amateur radio transceiver in my car I had a serious static problem. What did I have to do? I had to listen to the static! When did it occur? What increased or decreased it? What precisely did it sound like? Then when I knew what was causing it, I could fix it. In this case it required both a simple filter and some additional grounding. But I found that out by listening to static!

By now you may be wondering about my first two texts. It’s hard to tell just what was the last book in the Old Testament that was written, so I’m just following the order of the books as we have them in our western Bibles. (My Orthodox Study Bible, based on the easter church’s order, ends the Old Testament with Daniel.) You’ll note that the Bible ends with a word of prophecy, and that only 18 verses later, if you count straight through, we have God intervening through the virgin conception of Jesus.

Now here’s the thing. You’re getting two miraculous events, events in which we see God active, and you read from one to the other in minutes. It’s like watching chase scenes from two Indiana Jones movies in a row. Months or years may have passed in the fictional timelines of the movies, but you see the scenes in sequence-continuous excitement! That’s what movies are for.

But between Malachi and Matthew there are 400 years. What was God doing during that time?

When you think God is being silent in your life, I would suggest two things to consider: First, silent relative to what? Second, are you listening to everything God wants you to hear?

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